Leather 101: Different Types Of Leather Furniture

Posted In Knowledge - 09/02/2016

Supple and distinct, leather is the only material that gets better and more luxurious with age. No other material is so durable, easy to care for, and natural. Picture a sumptuous leather sofa that gains a supple patina over the years.

Because leather “breathes,” it won’t pick up on surrounding room temperatures, whether too cold or too hot. Yet it doesn't pick up odors as other upholstery tends to do.  It has a durable resilient surface that is resistant to marks and stains.  This makes leather an ideal fit for seating and furnishings throughout your home. 

To help you in your comparison shopping, here's a short course on the common leather terms and lingo that can sometimes be confusing.

Seeking the Best Hide

Leather begins with an animal hide that is tanned or preserved. The first quality issue is where leather is taken from the hide. The best leather is always top grain, from the topmost layer of the surface. Less expensive and weaker leathers, including suede, are taken from lower layers or splits of the hide.

Dying to be Beautiful

Aniline is a transparent liquid dye used to color high quality hides.Pure aniline leathers are crafted from the highest quality top grain.Semi-anilines have added color and protective finishes making them practical for families.Corrected grain leathers are top grain, but have been buffed and embossed resulting in a slightly stiffer surface.Nubuck and suede are buffed for a soft, velvety nap, but can be vulnerable to stains and markings.

The quality of the leather is also based on the dyeing process. Soft and supple aniline leathers are considered the most luxurious and stylish, but they are not necessarily the most practical option.

  • Aniline is a transparent liquid dye (and natural derivative) used to color high quality hides. These dyes provide permanent color that also allows natural grain and markings to show through. Caution: The word “aniline” is used in a couple of ways, which can be confusing when you’re just learning.
  • Pure aniline leathers are created from the highest quality top grain and are best for adult use. No additional pigment or surface treatments are applied after the dyeing process, so the quality of the leather must be outstanding. Like silk or hand-woven fabric, pure anilines are prized for their natural look and soft hand. Less than 5% of the world’s leathers qualify as pure aniline…explaining their high cost.
  • Semi-anilines are soft leathers that are also more practical and easily maintained, making them a safer family option. In addition to aniline dyeing, these hides are given added color and/or protective finishes. Surface corrections are also made to correct imperfections and pigmenting. These are a safer option, but not as heavy duty as corrected grain leathers.
  • Corrected grain leathers are also top grain-but not quite as flawless as the most expensive hides. They are buffed to remove unattractive surface markings before color pigment is added, then embossed with a natural grain pattern. The resulting surface is somewhat stiffer than pure aniline leather, although it will soften with use.
  • Nubuck or suede -- Both are buffed for a soft, velvety nap, but there’s a big difference. Suede is made from splits, so it’s a less expensive and less durable leather product. Nubuck is aniline dyed top grain leather, so it lasts longer and shows more natural markings. Because of its nap, Nubuck often receives a protective coating to guard against stains and markings.
  • Just for the record: Suede isn’t the only product made from splits. Finishing techniques like embossing or antiquing can be applied to splits to make them resemble top grains. Such leather is less expensive, but does not have the same hand or strength as true top grains.

Leather  Care and Cleaning

Leather care is pretty basic and starts with preventive maintenance. These simple steps will extend the life of your leather furniture:

  • Heat and light are not your furniture’s best friends. Try to keep leather upholstery two feet or more from direct heat, and remember that leather (especially aniline and nubuck) will fade if near windows, under skylights, or in direct sunlight.
  • Keep your furniture dust- and dirt-free. Dusting and occasional vacuuming with a soft brush will prevent dirt and dust from being ground into the leather.
    Deal with spills and soil gently (never scrub), but as soon as possible. Permanent stains can result if food and liquid is not wiped away immediately.
  • To clean nubuck and suede, blot (don’t rub) excess liquid immediately with a clean white cloth or sponge. Allow the area to air dry naturally, then brush lightly with a suede brush to restore the nap.
  • Always use a clean cloth or sponge to clean up spills.
  • It’s important to blot spills, instead of trying to rub or scrub them away, then allow to air dry.
  • Body oils will stain leather, but they gradually blend into its surface giving both patina and character.
  • Because of the lack of surface coats, pure aniline leathers are less stain-resistant and should be handled with extra delicacy.

From modern leather benches to traditional leather loveseats this resilient material adds distinction and elegance to your home.  Now that you know some of the terms you can comparison shop with ease and be assured that you are picking out the type of leather that will provide you with many years of comfort and beauty.

Explore more ideas on decorating with leather in these related articles:  All About Leather UpholsteryLeather 101: Blended Leather, and Leather vs. Fabric Couch.

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